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5. McKenzie River, Cascade Range

Whitewater Kayaking the crystal clear waters of the McKenzie River
The crystal clear waters of the McKenzie River are a favorite for those getting their feet wet in the wide world of Oregon whitewater. Photos by K.M. Collins

The McKenzie River is a great place to crossover into whitewater. Just ask any Oregonian, and like me, they’ll say this is where they experienced their first rapids. 

Dip your toes into whitewater

If you’re looking to challenge yourself and move from flat water to light whitewater, the McKenzie River from Forest Glen to Silver Creek is the perfect spot. The best part? There is actually an inflatable kayak on the market named the McKenzie, intended for this exact purpose. It comes in a single and a tandem, in case you want to brave things with a buddy. Coincidence, I think not?

Forest Glen to Silver Creek: Beginner friendly

Deep in the Cascade Range, meandering through basalt tunnels and popping in and out of the surface, until a recent forest fire, the McKenzie was also hidden in a shroud of underbrush. Post-fire it’s far more exposed and easy to scout from the highway that parallels it. The friendliest stretch to try your hand at whitewater on is Forest Glen to Silver Creek. The rapids top out at class II+ even during spring high water. That being said, check flows through American Whitewater and call the local ranger station for updates if it’s your first run. Note that wood or newly fallen trees can be a particular hazard in the spring—and anytime of year. 

What you’ll love about this stretch as a beginner is that there are pools between each rapid so in the event a capsize occurs, you’ll have plenty of time to self-rescue and get back in your boat. Rapids like Frogger, Eagle Rock and Screamer will challenge your limits but are totally accessible to the well prepared novice. 

Keep challenging yourself upstream

Once you’ve mastered this stretch, pick away at sections up river. The further you move up river, the more you will challenge yourself. I learned to whitewater kayak in this exact way with the help of Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe, mentioned earlier in the article. 

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